To visitors, historic Kensington has always been a charming place to ogle Victorians and browse in antique shops. But as a dining destination—forget it.
In the last few years, however, as successful legislative efforts have chipped away at the town’s decades-old alcohol ban, things have been slowly changing.
“I think it would be hard to call what’s happening in Kensington an ‘eating scene,’ but there are finally places to eat!” says resident Nycci Nellis, founder of the food and wine website TheListAreYouOnIt.com and co-host with her husband, David, of the Sunday “Foodie & the Beast” show on Federal News Radio.
Patchwork legalization of alcohol sales has enabled three restaurants to obtain licenses, and the Old Town Market, site of a former 7-Eleven, became the first retail shop to sell beer and wine in Kensington in 2011. Along with more than 100 craft beers and an equal number of everyday and hard-to-find wines, the market at 10251 Kensington Parkway offers terrific takeout soups, sandwiches and baked goods.
Here are three places to eat (and drink) in Kensington. >>
10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, 301-832-1065, www.frankly-pizza.com
HOURS: Open for dinner from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Carryout orders must be placed at the restaurant, not over the phone.
RESERVATIONS: Not taken
PRICES: Pizzas range from $9 to $16; additional toppings are 50 cents to $3 each.
FAVORITE DISHES: Pepperoni, meatball or mushroom pizza; Bacon & Egg, or any other pizza with bacon
BEER AND WINE: Small but serviceable selection of four beers on tap, four wines on tap, four wines by the bottle, plus homemade sodas
PARKING: Street parking
At this friendly pizza joint, the greeting is warm, the waitresses dash around the dining room smiling, and owner Frank Linn often sings while shaping pizza dough. The positive vibe is as infectious as watching Pharrell Williams’ video for his hit song “Happy.”
Maybe that’s because Linn finally has his own digs. A L’Academie de Cuisine graduate who cooked at several well-known downtown eateries, including 1789, Café Atlantico and Equinox, Linn ran a mobile pizza kitchen for years at farmers markets and private parties. He opened his own restaurant in July, after a tedious renovation and many delays.
Area residents should be glad, too, because Linn’s oak-fired pies are gems; the thin, chewy crusts are ringed with billowy charred blisters and topped with thoughtful ingredients. The menu is short, offering a couple of salads and about 10 pizza options, in addition to a nightly special (if it’s meatball pizza night, order it; mounds of slow-roasted, grass-fed organic beef sit atop red sauce, caramelized onion nectar, fresh oregano and heaps of Romano and mozzarella). Even a simple pepperoni pizza is elevated to special status with zingy disks of cured beef and pork, and any pie with Linn’s house-made campfire-smoky bacon is a must-get, including the Bacon & Egg (topped with quail eggs, arugula, gruyere, Romano and mozzarella, it’s only available on Saturdays and Sundays). The dense and chocolaty flourless chocolate brownie, served as an unadorned rectangle, tastes better than it looks—and wines on tap and house-made sodas add a fun twist.
The space, which has been a revolving door for restaurants (Café Monet, Café 1894 and Two Pears Café), telegraphs rustic and homey, with Amish-crafted tables, chandeliers made from salvaged wood and Mason jars, and dark green wainscoting and bricks on the largest wall. In warm weather, dining while sitting in the lovely front courtyard leaves customers smiling.
Sub*Urban Trading Co.
10301 Kensington Parkway, Kensington, 301-962-4046, suburbantrading.com
HOURS: Open for pastries and lunch from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Open for burgers, ribs and salads, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; bistro menu 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
RESERVATIONS: Not taken
PRICES: Lunch sandwiches and hot dishes, $7 to $8; bistro entrées, $15 to $22
FAVORITE DISHES: Duck confit with chickpeas, mixed herbs and tomatoes; fried mushroom, ricotta and manchego dumplings with English pea relish; marinated avocado with crusty bread and olive oil; seared calamari steaks; slow-cooked pork cheeks; buttermilk pie
BEER AND WINE: Decent-sized beer list covers the bases, with two beers on tap and 16 to 18 bottles. Short wine list is chosen to match the homey nature of the food. The beer and wine offerings are expected to be expanded.
PARKING: Shopping center lot
Kensington locals have been supporting this delightfully original neighborhood café as it gradually expanded in both size and scope since opening in 2008. Sub*Urban Trading matured from a carryout selling raw foods and baked goods to a deli and lunch counter, to a place for Sunday suppers and midweek burger nights, and finally in January 2014, to a full-service restaurant serving lunch and dinner. It’s high time the rest of the metropolitan area discovered this find, too.
Owned by mother-and-son team Alison and Andre Cavallaro and located in the same small strip mall as the Old Town Market, the quaint, quirky spot features a fresh and frequently changing menu. Andre Cavallaro, a California Culinary Academy graduate who worked as a chef in three of the Black Restaurant Group’s kitchens (Black’s Bar & Kitchen, Black Market Bistro and Addie’s), devises inventive combinations that manage to be both homespun and up-to-date.
His talents seem to especially shine with long-cooked, multi-ingredient dishes such as a comforting starter of duck confit, chickpeas, mixed herbs and tomatoes, or a main course of amazingly tender pork cheeks with ricotta dumplings and squash. (One exception: On the night I tried the popular lamb mole tacos, the meat was dry, stringy and lacking flavor.)
Nonetheless, shorter preparations such as tenderized calamari steaks, sautéed with garlic and chili oil and served with broccoli rabe and cherry tomato relish, produced unanimous accolades from our table; the combination of char, spiciness and fruit really worked. And a fried dumpling appetizer stuffed with mushrooms, ricotta and manchego was crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, and came with a revelatory relish of English peas soaked in a fresh thyme vinaigrette.
Lunch, served on paper plates in the coffeehouse-style front room—with communal wood tables, sofas, bookcases and a bar—might bring an unusual (and unusually good) bluefish salad sandwich on crusty ciabatta, spiked with dill and house-made pickles and bound with homemade mayonnaise. Dinner is served in the new, rustic back room—the former warehouse of the kitchen-and-bath shop next door—which has an earthy, spare feel, with a cement floor, exposed ceiling, eclectic wall décor (including a steer skull and a wagon wheel), and a bar fashioned from old doors.
Desserts don’t seem to keep pace with the savory offerings; at dinner, the creamy buttermilk pie was the best of the bunch, overshadowing just-average cookies and a nondescript red wine and chocolate cake that didn’t resonate with either of its namesake ingredients. And my lunchtime carryout sampling of brownies, cupcakes and other items didn’t tempt me for a second round. Still, there are plenty of reasons to return. I’ll be back.
K Town Bistro
3784 Howard Ave., Kensington, 301-933-1211, ktownbistro.com
HOURS: Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; for dinner from
5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
RESERVATIONS: Available through Rezbook
PRICES: Dinner soups, salads and appetizers, $6 to $17; entrées, $18 to $30. Prix fixe two-course dinner for $24.99 every night from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
FAVORITE DISHES: Beet salad, ahi tuna sandwich, scallops with risotto and lobster sauce, KTown Trio (dessert)
BEER AND WINE: Small, standard selection of beer; wine list of about 16 familiar, mostly under-$45 bottles offers selections from California, Europe and South America.
PARKING: Street parking
This homey bistro with its old-school European menu, endearing service and sunny yellow walls seems to have found a niche. Gonzalo Barba, a hospitality veteran and longtime captain at the Watergate Hotel restaurant, opened the place in 2010, and it’s attracted a following ever since, skewing toward an older clientele. (Could it be the nightly early bird special?)
In general, I found the food had improved from my first visit after the bistro opened—I discovered that some of the better dishes are actually the trendier ones. A pretty red- and yellow-beet salad served on a cobalt-rimmed plate with pecans, goat cheese, radicchio and fun-to-eat crispy parsnips makes for a satisfying starter, and at lunch, the ahi tuna sandwich served rare, with red onion, lettuce, tomato and a well-matched wasabi ginger sauce, would be worth ordering again.
The scallops with risotto and lobster sauce seemed more refined—with a richer, less gluey sauce than from a previous visit. But thumbs-down for the osso buco—it was tough, chewy and unattractive. After the waiter inquired about the half-eaten dish, however, he apologized and brought us a short-rib dinner to go. (Reheated the next day, the meat was butter-knife tender.)
Finish with the KTown trio—chocolate mousse, caramelized bananas and crème brulée—fine versions of classic desserts that are worth revisiting, no matter your age.
Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor. To comment on this review, email firstname.lastname@example.org.